Even before the telephone interview begins, Wynton Marsalis can be heard in the background practicing his trumpet. He has just arrived in Strasbourg, France, where he will lead the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in the first of several European concert engagements.
“I’m feeling okay,” he says when asked if he is experiencing jet lag. There is still a youthful tinge to his voice, though a mature, gravelly tone, not unlike a riff from his horn, is increasingly evident.
At 44, Marsalis can be witty and playful. But during encounters with the media he carefully chooses his words, and tends to convey a no-nonsense demeanor. He exudes a “serious business” attitude that is not about to suffer either a fool or a reporter lightly.
And business is the topic of the moment for the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. He quickly clarifies his role at JALC, explaining the dual leadership role he shares with the organization’s executive director, Katherine E. Brown.
“Most of the administrative matters are handled by the executive director,” he says, “while it’s my responsibility to take care of the issues of art.” Jazz and Business
But issues of art are not entirely devoid of business elements. Indeed, Marsalis sees clear similarities between being an artistic director and conducting an orchestra and being the CEO of a major corporation. “In both capacities you’re talking about leadership and direction and working with people to achieve an objective,” he explains. “And this leadership can take on a number of different nuances.”
One of the more challenging administrative or business elements for Marsalis is communication, he admits. “It’s my job to communicate the vision as to who we are as an organization, to make sure [that] whatever changes we go through, we remain true to our mission,” he says. “We’ve had such growth in the last two or three years…that it’s been very challenging to maintain our overall purpose and goals.”
A sizable example of the JALC’s growth since Marsalis came on board some 20 years ago is evident in its still relatively new 100,000-square-foot facility that occupies two floors at the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle in New York City and cost more than $130 million. Another measure of success is perhaps the wellspring of musical programs and events that are reaching wider and wider audiences. Each year more than a quarter of a million young people and adults experience the music and educational programs at JALC. Moreover, millions are reached through the organization’s worldwide productions.
The Music Icon
To some extent, the remarkable development at JALC mirrors the rapid ascendance of its artistic director. The second of six sons in the musically talented family of pianist-composer Ellis Marsalis of New Orleans, Wynton, by the age of 8, was performing in church bands and seriously studying the trumpet when he was 12. Two years later, he was a guest soloist with the New Orleans Philharmonic, performing the exceedingly difficult Haydn Trumpet Concerto.
In 1980, Marsalis interrupted his classical studies at the Juilliard School of Music to join the renowned Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. After a stint under Blakey’s tutelage, there were performances with countless jazz legends, including Sarah Vaughan, Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie, as well as memorable concert dates with his brothers Branford, Delfeayo and Jason.
In 1982, Marsalis released a slew of recordings and, within months, he was the first and only artist ever to win both the classical and jazz Grammy awards in one year, a feat he repeated in 1984. Yet another first, and one of even greater importance, awaited Marsalis in 1997, when he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1997 for his work Blood on the Fields, a piece commissioned by JALC.
To an extensive list of awards and honors, add Marsalis being proclaimed international ambassador of goodwill by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. This appointment as a U.N. Messenger of Peace is perfectly appropriate for Marsalis, and he can place it right next to his Grand Prix du Disque from the French government, and the roomful of plaques and keys to more than 50 cities he has received to date.
Despite all the acclaim and prestige, there remain his duties as artistic director. Marsalis is not one to be looking over the shoulders of his employees or cohorts.
“I don’t believe in micromanaging,” he asserts. “I like to give people room to do their job. I feel like they are adults, and after they understand the general direction, they should be able to carry it out. It’s just like a jazz band. The more music you write, the less jazz the musicians are going to play. There are some parts you write out, for the horn section, for instance, but you have to give them room to express their own ideas.”
In an organization and in a band, members must be allowed an opportunity to participate and make their own decisions, “so long as they are within the parameters of the overall mission,” Marsalis continues. “Then you get out of the way, and let their creative processes work.”
Surely a lot of stress and pressure come with maintaining such a high-profile position? “I haven’t really felt any pressure on this job,” he responds. “And I haven’t faced any pressure since I was 10 in Canton, La. If you can make it through those first years, which I have, then everything should be okay.”
Marsalis voices a similar disregard for pressure during the period when JALC was the source of controversy about hiring practices and the race and ethnicity of musicians. “I never felt any pressure at that time…there was just a lot of talking going on with people saying the same thing. It wasn’t serious then, and it’s not serious now,” he says.
In the Future
What is serious now for Marsalis and his charges—which are as diverse as the rest of the staff and the board members at JALC—is to acquire a more significant presence on ITunes, where digital music files can be purchased. “We need to get more recordings there,” he says of his future plans.
And there is, of course, the packaging of their radio shows and recordings for worldwide distribution and “more advance-subscription models for everything we have to make our educational programs more integrated into the overall program, and this will make it easier for people to get to the various things we offer,” he promises.
Marsalis also promised that the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will continue to perform around the world, and such ventures will certainly enhance his role as ambassador of goodwill and messenger of peace. “We are scheduled to go to South Africa in January,” he says in closing. This will be the orchestra’s first trip to the continent.
Still very much on his mind amid his JALC duties is his home state in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation. “It will get better there slowly,” he concedes.
Slowly is clearly not the prescription for JALC, and with Marsalis at the artistic helm, the business of jazz has never be so promising or profitable.
By Herb Boyd